Metro Homicide Unit disbands as South Bend Police lack officers, detectives to spare

NOW: Metro Homicide Unit disbands as South Bend Police lack officers, detectives to spare

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A major shift is coming to policing and investigations in St. Joseph County.

On Thursday night, the South Bend Police Department pulled out of the St. Joseph County Metro Homicide Unit.

For almost 30 years, South Bend Police have been a part of Metro Homicide, but staffing issues, that the police department, and the city of South Bend, say are worse than years past, are forcing it to make tough decisions about the police department's partnerships.

In the early 1990’s Metro Homicide was created. The agency is made up of several different law enforcement agencies: South Bend Police Department, Mishawaka Police, St. Joseph County Police, and the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office.

The unit focuses on some of the worst crimes, including homicides, sexual assaults, and child molestations.

According to the prosecutor's office, who oversees the unit, the partnership made Metro Homicide one of the most successful investigative units in the country, but all along South Bend Police, and the city, say it’s dealt with staffing issues.

"Up until this point, we’ve been doing everything we can to keep these units up and running, but next year looks to be even more challenging," South Bend Mayor James Mueller says at a Friday news conference. 

"We are now down to a department of 215, 17 detectives, and our patrol division is probably 20 or 30 guys less than what it used to be," Josh Morgan, the Vice President of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 36, says. "We’re still covering the 100,000-plus calls for service and the over 20,000 cases generated."

On Thursday night, the City of South Bend announced its police would be pulling out of the agreement that created Metro Homicide because it says it's unable to staff most of the positions due to shortages and pending retirements.

"This has been a long time coming in many ways," Mayor Mueller says. 

A few years ago, South Bend reduced the number of officers it supplied the unit from 11 to 8. As of this year, Metro Homicide was compromised of 12 total positions: four from South Bend and four from the prosecutor’s office, three from county police, and one from Mishawaka.

A deal to save Metro Homicide, and the Special Victims' Unit, which the prosecutor’s office also oversees, and which South Bend provides seven personnel too, couldn’t be reached.

"Every time they (South Bend) suggested something, it seemed like it was being shut down (by the prosecutor's office), like an all-or-nothing type of thing," Morgan explains. 

The Special Victims' Unit is also staffed with a pair of officers each from the St. Joseph County Police and Mishawaka, and the prosecutor’s office contributes one more.

"This is not an issue of money or commitment, this is an issue of manpower," Mayor Mueller reminds. 

Now, South Bend Police will take over all investigations in South Bend.

"These are tough decisions that the city as well as the chief’s office – they don’t want to have to make these decisions, but they have to be done," Morgan says. 

On Friday morning, St. Joseph County Police followed suit, saying it will take over its own investigations too.

In a statement, Sheriff Bill Redman says in part, "This transition will take time and adjustments will be made, but I want to reassure the citizens of St. Joseph County that we are all dedicated to the safety and security of our community. "

But a Thursday night statement from St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter’s office described him as "saddened" that out of a department of 200 sworn officers, South Bend couldn’t contribute eight.

In a Friday afternoon statement from Mishawaka Police Chief Ken Witkowski, he too says he’s disappointed the units are disbanding, but assures a smooth transition.

That means handing-off cases these specialty units were investigating to each of the agencies involved.

"Definitely by January 1, 2022, but there are some indications that could happen beforehand," Mayor Mueller says.

The mayor says the hand-off won’t cause any set-backs.

"We feel confident in our officers and their ability to investigate crimes and solve crimes," the Mayor adds. 

Mueller says filling the more than 40 spots the South Bend Police Department is budgeted for isn’t going to happen overnight, but it’ll aggressively be looking for candidates. He also didn’t rule out going back to a Metro Homicide Unit in the future, but right now the city and South Bend Police are exploring all options.

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